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Scattered violence as Nigerian voters go to the polls

Scattered violence as Nigerian voters go to the polls
Electoral commission officers and voters hold a discussion while votes are counted at the Shagari Primary School polling station in Yola, Nigeria, after the polls closed Saturday. (Cristina Aldehuela / AFP/Getty Images)

Amid scattered violence, Nigerians went to the polls Saturday to elect a president, a week after a jarring postponement of the vote was announced just five hours before polling stations had been due to open.

At least sixteen deaths were reported in eight states as voters turned out to decide between two septuagenarian front-runners, President Muhammadu Buhari and former vice president Atiku Abubakar, among more than 70 candidates.

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In the northern city of Daura, the home of Buhari, police were stationed around town as men and women stood in separate lines at busy polling stations.

When the president cast his ballot, a crowd of supporters cheered him on.

“So far so good,” Buhari, 76, told reporters. When he asked whether he would congratulate Abubakar, 72, if he won, Buhari said he planned to congratulate himself: “I’m going to be the winner.”

Election results are likely to be announced early in the week.

Before polls opened, suspected Islamist militants reportedly staged an attack in northeastern Yobe state, and residents of Maiduguri in neighboring Borno state reported hearing gunshots, which police later said were not a threat.

In addition to the deaths reported by the Situation Room, a network of civil society organizations monitoring the vote, the group also reported problems at several polling stations around the country, including ballot boxes being “hijacked and carted away by unknown hoodlums,” attempts to intimidate voters, and voter card reading machines not working.

In the vote to lead the economic powerhouse of nearly 200 million people, both leading candidates ran tough campaigns yet appeared to have left many young voters uninspired. By focusing on growing ethnic and religious divisions, they also upped the risk of postelection violence like the country has endured after previous votes, observers said.

Buhari, a former military leader elected in 2015 in the nation’s first peaceful transfer of power, campaigned on maintaining “continuity” — not a particularly catchy platform, but after years of violent political transitions, one appealing to Nigerians who view the president as having a steady hand and a commitment to fighting corruption.

“For Nigerians to make meaningful progress, we have to kill the cancer of corruption and lawlessness,” said Imam Musa Mansur, a 54-year-old teacher in Daura. “That is exactly what Buhari is doing in the midst of many daunting challenges.”

Opponents said that Buhari failed to defeat the militant group Boko Haram — one of his key campaign promises four years ago — and that he moved too slowly to revive an economy limping out of recession while millions of Nigerians struggle to find work and feed their children.

Abubakar , a wealthy businessman who has previously run for president four times, positioned himself as the pro-investment candidate, promising sweeping economic reforms and pledging to create millions of jobs.

His supporters said that the country needs a change — and that Nigerians need to send a message to politicians that if they don’t deliver, they’ll be voted out.

Last week’s delay, which the electoral commission chalked up to logistical challenges, shook the confidence of many of Nigeria’s 84 million registered voters, sparking conspiracy theories that could undermine faith in the final election result.

Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province, which splintered off from Boko Haram, warned residents in the restive northeast not to vote.

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For people in more stable parts of the country, the last-minute move reinforced a latent mistrust in the country’s political process, said Sa’eed Husaini, an analyst with the risk consultancy firm Control Risks.

“There does seem to be some apathy, particularly among the middle class, and even a sense of resignation,” he said.

Buhari himself fanned concerns over security during Saturday’s vote when he said this week that anyone trying to illegally interfere with elections will do so “at the expense of his own life.”

The head of the army also issued a dark warning.

“The unity of Nigeria is not negotiable,” said Chief of Army Staff Tukur Yusuf Buratai on Wednesday. “Those who seek to undermine our democracy by interfering in our electoral process must be seen as enemies of Nigeria and dealt with appropriately.”

In Daura, the atmosphere on voting day was calm. The roads were empty due to traffic restrictions, and children used the day to play outside with friends or carry buckets of water to their houses.

Voters standing in long lines said they were happy to be given a chance to do their civic duty.

“I left my house early this morning, saying, ‘Oh, God! Let there be no postponement again!’ ” said Mairo Muhammad, a 78-year-old grandmother wearing a white veil, standing in line with other women waiting to vote.

“It’s not about me. I want to be confident that the grandchildren I leave behind have a good country they can be proud of.”

Special correspondents Abubakar reported from Daura, Nigeria, and Mahr from Cape Town, South Africa.

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